Saints’ West Coast jaunt critical to successful season
Wow! What a start to the 2019 season that was on Monday night. After losing the lead with less than a minute left on a two-pay, 75 yard drive, quarterback Drew Brees was able to put the Saints in position to attempt a game winning field goal. Kicker Wil Lutz lined up a career-long 58-yard attempt and split the uprights as the clock reached 0:00, giving the Black & Gold a 30-28 victory over the Houston Texans. The win snapped a five-year opening game losing streak and helped ease the pain of last season’s blown no call. I’m not sure how the fanbase would have handled the mental let down had that kick not been good.
Surely, there were many bright spots on opening day. Lutz’s kick under the pressure of the situation was immensely impressive. So too was the play of right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who held J.J. Watt, arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, to zero sacks and no hits on the quarterback. Running back Alvin Kamara may have had the best night of any player on the field, rushing 13 times for 97 yards and catching seven passes for 72 yards. And punter Thomas Morestead again proved his worth to the team by pinning the Texans deep in their own side of the field.
A win is a win is a win, but there was also a lot to be seemingly concerned about from the first game. The Texans proved the Saints have a lot to improve on going forward.
While he remains New Orleans’ hero, Brees only had one deep ball in the game. It came when it mattered most – putting the Saints in position to win on the last drive. But the performance left many feeling like his dip in production after Thanksgiving last season might not be an apparition. His first half interception looked more like he was trying to force a play rather than not having enough arm strength. However, considering his numbers – 74.4 completion percentage, 370 yards, two touchdowns, and a 105.8 quarterback rating – he is an intelligent player whose skills make a difference in games and give the Saints an edge more often than not. We’ll see soon enough if Brees will have to rely more on his mental, rather than physical, strength in order to be successful this season. It may be that a pedestrian preseason didn’t have him up to regular season speed. He may have felt rushed to make plays. More time under center will slow down the action around him and he’ll likely realize he has more time to survey the field and look to extend the field more.
The Saints defense has been notorious for slow starts, and the Texans game didn’t change that impression. While the defense tallied an impressive six sacks against Houston, the Texans’ offense was able to convert too many times, especially on third and long. Their last offensive possession was proof enough that the Saints’ secondary might not be quite ready for prime time.
That’s a scary proposition considering the Saints’ opponents for the remainder of the month. This weekend, they’ll play the Rams in Los Angles. They’ll stay on the West Coast next week before their game in Seattle in Week 3, before coming home to take on the Dallas Cowboys, who blew out the New York Giants. It’s a murderer’s row of games against some of the conference’s best teams, that essentially puts these games on a playoff level intensity.
Like last year, the Saints may have to play the Rams twice this season as they advance to their ultimate goal. Playing in Seattle is always difficult. And the Cowboys have seemed to have had the Saints number recently.
It’s not too early for the Saints to look at every game as having playoff implications. They have to win to ensure they not only qualify for the postseason, but have the easiest route to a championship by having home field advantage. And even if that happens, last season proved best laid plans can be sabotaged.
The Saints proved they can pull a victory from the jaws of defeat. They finished Week 1 as the only team in the division to score a win. Division rivals Tampa Bay and Carolina started Week 2 with a dud of a Thursday night game that, surprisingly, saw the Buccaneers win on the road. The Panthers, and their quarterback Cam Newton, looked like paper tigers.
The good news is that we’re just 1/16 through the season. The defense got better each week last season, and there is no reason to doubt that they’ll make strides to improve moving forward. There’s an old football maxim that teams make the most improvement between the first and second games of the season. Let’s hope this holds true.